By Will Vandervort.
By Will Vandervort
CLEMSON — Prior to Saturday’s loss to No. 9 Clemson, the Duke Blue Devils were one of the ACC’s top offensive football teams.
The Blue Devils (6-4, 3-3) were averaging 31.9 points and nearly 400 yards a game. Quarterback Sean Renfree was completing 68.6 percent of his passes, and wide receiver Conner Vernon was averaging 84.6 yards and 5.9 receptions per game.
Getting to Renfree was almost unheard of. Duke’s quarterbacks had been sacked just 10 times in nine games.
For the first 17 minutes of the Tigers’ 56-20 win, Duke looked the part. On its opening series of the night, Renfree drove his team 54 yards in 12 plays, which ended with a Ross Martin 46-yard field goal. On the next possession, he found Jamison Crowder running wide open for a 77-yard touchdown pass.
On the Blue Devils’ fourth possession, Renfree found Crowder again, this time for 37 yards, setting up a David Reeves 17-yard touchdown pass from Brandon Connette. In four possessions, Duke was the offensive team everyone thought it would be against the Tigers much-maligned defense, racking up 17 points and 214 total yards.
But then, the Tigers’ young defense grew up and it grew up fast, and right before our eyes. Duke possessed the ball four more times in the first half and it recorded only two first downs and totaled just 26 yards. In the second half it did not get any better.
After Reeves touchdown, the Blue Devils totaled only 128 yards the rest of the night and scored only three points. This coming from a Duke team that was 5-0 at home this season before Saturday’s game, and was averaging 42.6 points per game at Wallace Wade Stadium.
“Defensively we are playing physical. We are playing intense,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said during his Sunday teleconference with the media. “We are tackling better. We are getting pressure. We did a great job in third down.
“The biggest thing I am proud of, it was a night when we had several turnovers on offense, but we didn’t give up any points off turnovers.”
The Tigers (8-1, 5-1) did not give up much of anything the final 43 minutes of the game. Renfree, who started so hot, cooled down due to good coverage in the secondary and a consistent pass rush that brought him to the ground four times.
Vernon, who had five touchdowns coming in, was quiet most of the game. The ACC’s all-time leader in receptions was unable to set the conference’s career receiving yards record after being held to five catches for 47 yards.
Duke’s running game was non-existent, too. Clemson limited the Blue Devils to 85 yards on 33 carries with no running back gaining more than 38 yards. It marked the second straight week the Clemson defense held an opponent under 100 yards rushing.
“I am really pleased with the progression of our defense,” Swinney said. “We had a couple of big plays early in the game that hurt us, but we ended up settling in and recovering from that. Overall, it was a really positive night for our defense. We held them to three points in the second half.”
The Tigers have held their last three opponents at least to 20 points. It’s the kind of consistency from a young unit a football coach is thrilled to see. Especially when he knows he has an offense that is scoring 56 points, while racking up 718 total yards.
“Overall, it was just a good day,” Swinney said.